Republican state senators plan to vote Tuesday to repeal Gov. Tony Evers’ statewide mask mandate, a move that would strike down one of the governor’s remaining tools aimed at slowing the spread of COVID-19.
If the repeal passes both the Senate and the Assembly, it will end a mandate that’s been in place since last summer at a time when a more contagious variant of the virus is beginning to spread, and as the Biden administration is pushing for more aggressive steps to fight the pandemic.
Evers issued his first mask mandate on July 30 using a law that gives Wisconsin governors the power to order 60-day public health emergencies. It’s different from the law his administration used earlier last year to issue its “Safer at Home” order, which was struck down in May by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Evers extended the mandate on Sept. 22, citing a surge in COVID-19 cases as students returned to in-person instruction on college campuses.
On Nov. 20, Evers extended the mask mandate again, at the time noting that hospitals throughout Wisconsin were “on the brink of an unsustainable strain” with more than a third of all hospitals in the state operating at peak capacity.
Evers extended the mask mandate for a fourth time on Jan. 19, this time noting the new variant of COVID-19 that’s considered to be significantly more contagious.
The law that gives Wisconsin governors the power to issue emergency orders also give the Legislature the power to take them away with a simple majority vote in both houses, although up to this point, that’s a step GOP leaders have been reluctant to take.
Polling from Marquette University in October found the statewide mask mandate was popular, with 72 percent of Wisconsin voters in favor compared to 26 who were opposed.
With the election now behind them, Senate Republicans moved quickly to repeal Evers’ latest order, introducing a joint resolution to repeal the order two days after the governor issued it. A total of 29 GOP lawmakers have signed on as co-sponsors, including Senate President Chris Kapenga, R-Delafield.
The lead sponsor of the plan, Sen. Steve Nass, R-Whitewater, has described Evers’ orders as unlawful, and his resolution as a way to restore the balance of power in state government.
“Senate Joint Resolution 3 (SJR 3) invokes the legislative powers authorized by the Wisconsin Constitution and state statutes to protect our form of government that includes three separate branches with limited powers, so as to protect the governed from abusive government,” Nass said in a statement.
At the same time, a wide range of health groups have come out against the plan, including the Wisconsin Hospital Association, the Medical College of Wisconsin, the Pharmacy Society of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Medical Society.
“Studies show that wearing masks helps slow the spread of viruses like SARS-CoV-2 and that government requirements to wear masks correlates to reduced COVID-19 spread than in locations without such orders,” said Wisconsin Medical Society CEO Bud Chumbley in a statement. “We need to do all we can to prevent more deaths and help our economy return to normal.”
As of Tuesday, 17 groups had registered as lobbying against the plan. No groups had registered in favor.
Health care workers joined Democratic lawmakers at an online press conference before the vote urging members of the public to fight the GOP proposal.
“I can’t even begin to express how disappointed I am that any of us have to be here today to speak out against yet another act of Republican grandstanding that will only sacrifice more Wisconsin lives to a pandemic that is not yet under control,” said Kate Walton, a Madison emergency room nurse. “Instead of looking for solutions, they’re taking us backwards in the fight against this virus.”
State Sen. Kelda Roys, D-Madison, said the Senate’s vote would hamper Wisconsin’s ability to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
“If the Senate votes in favor of overturning the mask mandate, we are going to see increased death and illness in Wisconsin, and we are going to see this pandemic getting worse,” Roys said.
GOP leaders in the state Assembly have yet to announce whether they’ll vote on the resolution to repeal the mask mandate, but they could announce their plans quickly should the measure pass the Senate.
Unlike a typical bill that reaches his desk, Evers would not have the power to veto this plan because it’s a joint resolution of the Legislature.
Tuesday’s session will mark the first time GOP lawmakers have taken a vote to overturn one of Evers’ emergency orders rather than letting others fight them out in court.
The conservative Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty and Republican donor Jeré Fabick both filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the governor’s orders last year. WILL lost at the circuit court level and the Wisconsin Supreme Court has yet to rule in Fabick’s case.
COVID-19 cases have been on the decline in Wisconsin after spiking in November and jumping again in early January, but they remain higher than they were during most of last year.
On Jan. 25, the seven-day average of new positive cases was 1,577. By comparison, the seven-day average for new cases was 887 on July 30, the day first mask mandate was issued.